The End of Days Is Coming — Just Not to China
Why apocalyptic fiction and film haven’t caught on in the Middle Kingdom.
The new wave
China’s dystopian writers didn’t arrive en masse until after the pivotal year of 1989, later than the West by a few centuries. (Li Jie’s 1999 novel The End of Red Chinese Dynasty is one example.) But the history from which they draw stretches back millennia. “If we pull back far enough to view human history from a more elevated perspective, we can see that society builds up, invents, creates utopias—sketches of perfect, imagined futures,” Chen Qiufan, one of China’s most promising young dystopian novelists, wrote in a blog post, “and then, inevitably, the utopias collapse, betray their ideals, and turn into dystopias.”
The miasma of censorship enveloping China still prevents true apocalyptic satire of the Mao years — or the present, for that matter. Wu Yan, a professor at Beijing Normal University and an expert in science fiction, told me that, generally speaking, works about “the destruction of China or Beijing [are] not really allowed to be published.” Chen was more direct: “Everyone avoids the word ‘doomsday’ in modern China,” he told me.
And yet, there have been some attempts. The journalist Han Song’s 2000 novel 2066: Red Star Over America sees the United States riven by anarchy under the thumb of a revolutionary dictator. A Chinese genius wanders through the pockmarked United States, trying to save it. It’s subtle — necessary when writing in China about the sensitive subject of the Cultural Revolution — but the madness of 2066 America reminds one a lot of another country, 100 years earlier.
There is something viscerally satisfying in watching your country fall apart. “Most apocalyptic themes have a sense of reckoning, which is a human need,” said Sheng of the Shanghai Review of Books. And with these kind of movies, there’s often a great “visual impact and thrill.” There’s something cathartic about the chaos, something peaceful about the post-apocalyptic quiet. American apocalyptic movies are popular in China, Wu said — and those that show China saving the world, like the film 2012, doubly so. And yet the apocalyptic movies screened in China are all U.S. imports. “An American audience can watch a disaster movie and say, ‘We have an incompetent president, or a deadlocked Congress, and we’ll vote them out,’” Brooks said. In China, it’s far too sensitive for the Communist Party to be criticized, even implicitly, for the country’s destruction.
Of course, that’s not to say the party is blameless. In a discussion forum on the popular Chinese question-and-answer website Zhihu, an anonymous commenter asked why China has so few apocalyptic movies and fiction. “One day your house could be torn down, and you’d be left with no compensation, nothing. Does that count as the apocalypse,” another commenter replied. For those at the bottom of Chinese society, life is about survival, this commenter added. And apocalyptic fiction is about as useful to them as “knitting wool.”
The end has no end
Like in the United States, there are thousands of Chinese sci-fi novels published online that barely get noticed. Liu, the author of The Three-Body Problem, said it’s likely there’s some apocalyptic fiction online where China gets destroyed, but he’s never come across it. For him, the destruction of the Earth and sun at the end of his Three-Body trilogy “just made sense,” he said. But humanity survives. “It wasn’t that pessimistic,” he said.
Of China’s extremely small canon of apocalyptic literature, Wang Lixiong’s book is the bleakest. “Yellow Peril was too dark,” Chen told me. “I got depressed for quite a long time after reading it. That all this so-called 5,000 years of history would end up in this very cynical way — us behaving like cavemen, struggling for living in the jungle.”
Chen’s own dystopian contribution, The Waste Tide, is less pessimistic, but still dark: It tells of a village in wealthy 2020’s China where a technologically proficient group of cyberpunks enslave an underclass of humans from poor regions of Guangdong province, forcing them to sift through toxic recycling materials. Chen says China’s immense wealth gap and a trip to a nearby impoverished village influenced him. “Different groups of people in modern China have their own vanities, their own struggles,” he said. “I want people to see more than their own class and their own life.”
Similarly 2009’s The Fat Years, by the Hong Kong writer Chan Koonchung, sees the Chinese dominant and happy in 2013 and the United States reeling from a financial crisis — but no one in China can remember what happened in February 2011 (it turns out the communists sprinkled the water supply with amnesia-inducing drugs).
Wang, however, can’t shake the feeling that disaster may be imminent. “Whether what I wrote about will come to pass, I cannot answer,” Wang wrote in his blog. “We can only wait for ‘the will of heaven’ — if China is not supposed to be destroyed, the elements it needs will appear.… Even if the mythical power beasts that rule China can still hold onto power for another 30 years, it’s just a bubble in the long river of history.”
In other words, the country will one day lie in ruins, but the mountains and rivers will remain.
Top Image Credit: VCG via Getty Images